Trends and Futures

Day 3: What constitutes a VR Experience? (Part 2)

By Glen O’Grady, Frederick Chew and Craig Gall, Australian National University

Yesterday we invited you to observe some VR experiences and the effect it had upon the user of the technology and we suggested the impact is related to the concepts of immersion and presence.

Immersion and presence are often used interchangeably in the VR literature but there are important distinctions. Immersion is the creation of reality that has an impact on the learner. While presence is the psychological state the learner experiences when there is immersion (Qin 2009).

Inducing a sense of physical immersion involves manipulating human sensory systems to enable the belief one is surrounded by a virtual world (Dede 1995).  Immersion in VR is a product of technology facilitating the production of multimodal sensory input to the user (Wang 2017). The combination of technologies like stereoscopic vision that simulates depth of vision, coupled with a full field of view, spatial audio, movement, and a low latency rate (which is the time lag between when a user acts and when the virtual environment reflects that action[1]) produces a powerful sensory experience. 

[1] A VR system should ideally have a delay of 15ms or even 7ms between the time a player moves their head and the time the player sees a new, corrected view of the scene (Orland 2013)

What makes VR potentially such a powerful experience?

In 1975, Csikszentmihalyi proposed the term flow, this term describes a state of absorption or engagement in an activity (Pace, 2004). It characterizes a psychological state of concentration, focus and elevated enjoyment during intrinsically interesting activities (Hamari, 2016). Researchers have looked at the concept of flow in the context of VR and have identified two key components that facilitate flow in VR experiences –  immersion and presence (Qin 2009).  

Stereoscopic Vision Field of View Spatial Audio
By Thepigdog (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 File: Peripheral vision.svg Created: 29 November 2014 Am3d. (n.d.). 3d_300x287 [Representation of 3d sound system]. Retrieved February, 2017, from

Other important aspects that can facilitate immersion are the use of narratives and creative design. Narratives are more than just a story that can give context to a new reality, narrative and narrative genres are often used as a way of defining the conventions of a world and that help players align their expectations with the logic of the world. Narratives that are particularly effective are those that foster curiosity, concentration, challenge and skill, control, comprehension, empathy, and familiarity (Qin 2008). Researchers have found that creative design features like the use of light, colour and texture can also invoke immersion.  A set of experiments (Naz 2017) illustrated that perceivable emotional aspects of real-world spaces could be successfully generated through simulation of design attributes in the virtual space (subjective response to the virtual space was consistent with corresponding responses from real-world colour and brightness emotional perception).

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In summary, the virtual environment, when the user can see, hear, and manipulate the environment, just as they do in the real world this provides the user with a visceral feeling and cognitive belief that what they are experiencing virtually, has a form of physical reality. This feeling and belief is what constitutes presence.

Presence is defined as “the subjective experience of being in one place or environment, even when one is physically situated in another” (Witmer and Singer 1998). The sense of “being there” is largely dependent upon the level of immersion that is created. Witmer and Singer (1998) contend that a virtual environment that has a greater sense of immersion, produces higher levels of presence. When you watched the VR experiences earlier and witnessed the visceral nature of this experience it is worth considering what the user brought to the activity. Their willingness to invest not only their time, but their feelings and thoughts, into the activity – to the point that they perceived themselves in the context of these environments and allowed the continuous stimuli to reinforce this perception.

To explore more on the concept of presence you can go here.

Stevens (2015) has specified what is hypothesised as the design factors in VR that foster presence.

We will later in the week explore how these might be design features for possible VR education experiences.

One of the better lectures that explains presence based on perceptual reality. Bruno Herbelin – Cognitive mechanisms behind presence and embodiment in Virtual Reality

A tour of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab that addresses the psychological effects of VR. It explains how immersion and presence are influenced by technical and other affordances. Virtual Reality’s Psychological and Behavioral Effects



Today we have tried to briefly examine what makes for a VR experience so powerful. Discuss the following questions in the forum:

  • When considering how you have been immersed in face to face learning activties what were the factors that you believe helped to facilitate that immersion?
  • What do you think will be the challenges in fostering immersion and presence in VR learning activities?



Dede, C. (1995). The evolution of constructivist learning environments: Immersion in distributed, virtual worlds. Educational technology35(5), 46-52.

Hamari, J., Shernoff, D. J., Rowe, E., Coller, B., Asbell-Clarke, J., & Edwards, T. (2016). Challenging games help students learn: An empirical study on engagement, flow and immersion in game-based learning. Computers in Human Behavior54, 170-179.

Naz A., Kopper R., McMahan R. P. and Nadin, M. (2017) “Emotional qualities of VR space,” 2017 IEEE Virtual Reality (VR), Los Angeles, CA, pp. 3-11.

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York Basic books.

Orland Kyle. (2013). How fast does “virtual reality” have to be to look like “actual reality”?. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 3 July 2017].

Pace, S. (2004). A grounded theory of the flow experiences of Web users. International journal of human-computer studies60(3), 327-363.

Qin, H., Patrick Rau, P. L., & Salvendy, G. (2009). Measuring player immersion in the computer game narrative. Intl. Journal of Human–Computer Interaction25(2), 107-133.

Stevens, Jonathan A., and J. Peter Kincaid. (2015). “The relationship between presence and performance in virtual simulation training.” Open Journal of Modelling and Simulation 3, no. 02 :41.

Wang, Y. F., Petrina, S., & Feng, F. (2017). VILLAGE—Virtual Immersive Language Learning and Gaming Environment: Immersion and presence. British Journal of Educational Technology48(2), 431-450.

Witmer, B. and Singer, M. (1998) Measuring Presence in Virtual Environments: A Presence Questionnaire. Presence, 7, 225-240.


9 thoughts on “Day 3: What constitutes a VR Experience? (Part 2)

  1. * When considering how you have been immersed in face to face learning activties what were the factors that you believe helped to facilitate that immersion?

    As discussed in the notes, I believe it was the use of narrative, not any visual or other props, which made face to face learning compelling.

    Also the classroom provides interaction with people, not just things (something I miss with e-learning). This is one reason I see Augmented Reality, being more useful than VR: you can use the tech, but still see and interact with real people.

    Yesterday, Google relaunched their “Google Glass” AR headset as “Glass Enterprise Edition”. This is now targeted at industry, rather than as a consumer product. It has obvious uses in engineering and medicine. I suggest the training could be integrated in the headset, in the workplace. As well as looking at electronic manuals, your teacher could pop up to provide help in fixing a jet engine or diagnosing a patient.

    * What do you think will be the challenges in fostering immersion and presence in VR leraning activities?

    One problem with VR is that if it tries to render realistic people, you enter the “uncanny valley”, where the figures look creepy (Li & Gedeon, 2015).


    Li, X., & Gedeon, T. (2015, October). Gender disparity and the creepy hill in face replacement videos. In Cognitive Infocommunications (CogInfoCom), 2015 6th IEEE International Conference on (pp. 413-418). IEEE. DOI: 10.1109/CogInfoCom.2015.7390629

  2. When considering how you have been immersed in face to face learning activities what were the factors that you believe helped to facilitate that immersion?
    I think being really engaged in the topic beforehand and usually that was achieved via the educator using some kind of anchor to really hook you in to the topic. Always being aware of the bigger picture surrounding the learning activity (why is this important/why should we care) helps facilitate engagement/immersion.

    What do you think will be the challenges in fostering immersion and presence in VR learning activities?
    Like Tom said, I think it’s the ‘realisticness’ of the VR. Some of the ‘best’ tvs these days are so HD that I feel like they have a fakeness to them, and that always detracts from the immersion for me.

  3. # When considering how you have been immersed in face to face learning activities what were the factors that you believe helped to facilitate that immersion?

    I’m not quite sure how to read “immersion” for a face to face activity (if defined as the “creation of reality that has an impact on the learner”). I guess the equivalent concept in conventional learning is how well engaged with it you are, and there I think it’s combination of the person delivering the material, the nature of the material (whether it’s intrinsically interesting), and the way in which it is delivered.

    # What do you think will be the challenges in fostering immersion and presence in VR learning activities?

    Making the environment visually immersive seems feasible, though as mentioned above the uncanny valley could be a problem. This is probably not limited the visual depiction of people, but also how they sound (what they say, whether they can converse in a realistic manner) and how we are able to interact with them (can we act and react how we would in reality)

    Probably giving learners a natural way to physically interact with their environment is also an issue. The way we need to interact with that environment will depend on the nature of the task at hand, but I can imagine that if it’s a frustrating experience then it will be a significant barrier to immersion. In some ways, making this interaction deliberately non-realistic (but effective) may be better, such that it’s not a distraction.

    1. I think Ed in my own mind immersion in a face to face activity is the carefully crafted lesson that might utilise strategies like debates, role plays, a problem-based activity using an authentic problem, a real world project… Whereas presence is the psychological state students experience in the task if you managed to get the activity and its immersive elements right (not withstanding students choice in wanting to engage or not, no matter how well you designed the activity).

  4. Case studies and real problem solving sessions are paramount, and I always learn from errors. I think if VR is married with big data, there will be little limit for it to reach. Currently, I don’t expect VR to create all scenarios including rarely observed ones. It is fine to explore unknown worlds because users might have little experience or knowledge. It could be even better if we experience unexpected events in a relatively familiar virtual environment. The challenge I see at present is for VR architects to have big data support so as to create more “real” scenarios.

  5. When thinking of the most ‘immersive’ learning activities I have been involved in, almost all of them involve small collaborative environments (study groups, group discussions). The unpredictability and dynamics of another mind working on the same level of problem makes learning a very engaging activity. Including a hands-on aspect of the activity is also extremely engaging, and I feel this is where VR may have the opportunity to play a part. Allowing people to engage in ‘hands-on’ activities where they otherwise would not have access to a particular facility, or creating scenarios that are otherwise completely inaccessible for most will be very valuable.

    The challenge, then, will be as Wei says; creating more ‘real’ scenarios for people to engage with, in order to cement their learning experience.

  6. In language teaching, the term immersion has a different and very specific meaning. It usually refers to language use in a naturalistic environment such as during an overseas experience. In a classroom setting you could think of task-based learning where language is used with a realistic purpose, making the experience more authentic. So for VR, I think creating a purpose similar to real-life situations is one way to create the immersion and presence.

  7. In face-to-face learning, I get engaged when the teacher is really good in connecting the lesson to real life situations using stories and/or showing the practical application of the lesson. I’m a visual learner so photos, illustrations, diagrams and videos on the topic engage me. Others are opportunities for problem solving, activities that allow me to construct my own knowledge and hands-on activities.

    The challenge with VR is to “stop” educators from using it without the proper learning design around it. The VR technology alone will not foster immersion and presence. It’s all the other things that go with it including the topic and discipline where it is being used. I believe that students in disciplines like medicine will benefit more from VR compared to others. I also cannot emphasize enough the design of the particular lesson or module where it will be used.

    And related to my post to Day 2, the physical environment and the hardware and software also affect the student’s immersion. It’s hard to get immersed when you have a crappy VR headset that keeps falling off every time you move your head.

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